The Big Bang Theory (the sitcom, not the theory about the birth of the universe) premiered tonight. The women on the show are an interesting mix that pretty much sum up our stereotypical views about women – Penny, the pretty ditz who isn’t too bright and wants to be an actress. Amy Farrah Fowler, the brilliant, frumpy, geeky scientists who can’t get a boy to kiss her. Then there’s Bernadette. Thank goodness for Bernadette, the buxom blonde, super smart scientist who is both girly and opinionated. As far as role models go, that could be just right. The Goldilocks female role model?
Look, it is a great time to be a woman. The zone of feminine domain has been utterly redefined over the last century. Once upon a time, the idea of womanhood was intimately tied to pursuits of the home. It was unusual for women to step out of that comfort zone and push the boundaries of the human experience. When a woman did show the audacity to journey beyond the usual womanly ways, she was an oddity of such magnificence that she became famous purely for the fact that she did something outside the female norm. Marie Curie. Amelia Earhart. Sally Ride. Joan Rivers. These women did things that other people (men) were doing at the time. Don’t get me wrong, these chicks rocked! But it is interesting to consider that doing something men already do, when you have a vagina, somehow makes it spectacular. It still happens today. We hear about the first women to do all sorts of things that men have been doing forever, and somehow we are compelled to gasp and comment and discuss. Humans are still fascinated when a woman dares to do something outside the confines of our comfortable view of what women do.
Now I ask you this: Why don’t we gasp, and comment, and discuss the fact that women are STILL being judged on their exterior attributes more than their intellect and abilities? The double standard for women is alive and well. I have seen it and heard about it from more women than seems reasonable in a modern society where women can vote, and hold political office, and run their own businesses, and anything else they damn well please. The idea that you should be pretty but not too pretty, sweet but not too sweet, tough but not too tough – Jesus Christ, the rules for how to succeed at ANYTHING when you are a woman are just downright confusing and often completely unreasonable. This Goldilocks standard for women is a real problem. Not too much of anything. Just the right amount of everything. Fuck that. I don’t care if you think I am too hard, too soft, too hot, too cold, or just goddamn right. I am who I am. Deal with it.
When I started as a lecturer at the University of Arizona I was pretty young (31 to be exact). I have always looked young for my age, and a couple of my male colleagues told me that I should dress up when I was teaching, to make sure the students took me seriously. I had already planned on doing this, since I enjoy dressing up, I like being girly, I like heels, and wearing dresses, etc. But out of curiosity I asked a few of my male counterparts if they had ever worried about dressing professionally when teaching. I asked my husband, who is slightly younger than me, if he was given the same advice when he started teaching at UA a couple of years before. Not one of the males I asked had ever been told to consider dressing professionally for teaching. Not one. I don’t know if any of you have ever taken a geology course, but chances are your instructor (probably a white male) was wearing shorts, sandals, hiking boots, jeans, a fleece vest, a baseball hat, or something in that vein of attire. Even the female faculty in geology (and many other science) departments tend to be less frilly and more no nonsense in their attire. My male colleagues teach in all manner of dress, from dress pants and button downs (my husband), to jeans, Hawaiian shirts, and Teva sandals. They are always taken seriously. Furthermore, if they are strict as instructors they are considered tough, smart, serious, and rigorous. However, if I am strict in my class I am considered a bitch. That’s it. Not smart. Not rigorous. Not, “Wow, she is amazing, she has really high standards and I want to exceed them because she might know a thing or two.” Just a bitch. It has happened to me so I know of what I speak. I have fist hand knowledge of this phenomenon. A male colleague of mine from the astronomy department told me about this double standard a few years into my UA appointment. He is strict, and a hard ass, and pretentious as hell, and the majority of his students love him for it. But he warned me that if I chose to try running my classroom as he did I would be asking for a bitch designation. I experimented in my classroom, and tried some of his techniques after watching the well-oiled machine that was his classroom. It worked so well for him in part because there was a healthy dose of fear amongst his students. Fear that they would be kicked out of class. Fear that they would feel stupid. So I tried some of his techniques in the hopes of running a similarly well-oiled machine. And they failed. Miserably. My teaching evaluations suffered that semester, and I had students write negative comments about me for the first time in all of my years of teaching. Negative comments about me, not just about the class. Me, a.k.a., The bitch. I postulate that as a woman, students expect me to be a kind and nurturing mother hen in the classroom, but they expect their male professors tough and strong. Gender stereotypes, anyone?
Now on to something somewhat related that is just too damn good not to draw your attention to. The video below is John Oliver raging about pageant competitions, in particular, the Miss America pageant. Perpetuation of gender stereotypes, anyone? Ladies, listen up…we CANNOT expect this double standard on women to ever change, we CANNOT ever expect women to be taken just as seriously as men in the workplace (or anywhere), if we continue to put ourselves into positions in which we are judged on our looks alone. Yes, we put ourselves in this situation. We choose to allow someone to spray-glue a bikini bottom onto our butts and traipse it around in front of a bunch of people who judge us worthy or unworthy of a title, a crown, and maybe a scholarship. It is so damn dangerous to the forward progress of women’s equality. I have already said on many occasions that I like dressing up pretty and doing my nails and wearing heels, so it is not at all about that. I even enjoy a nice compliment every now and then about my clothes or shoes or how I look. Who doesn’t? There’s nothing wrong with that. It is not about being less womanly. Or being less girly. Or downplaying your looks. Hell, I am all about loving yourself and dressing it up nice! It is about strutting around in a bathing suit and pretending that is what makes you worthy of positive judgment. It is about being ogled because of your body, and then told you are valued for your mind, or your talents, and buying into that shit. Let’s be real – it is all about what you look like in these pageants. They are called beauty pageants for a reason.
Watching a woman stand on stage and proclaim to the millions of viewers of the Miss America pageant that they offer $45 million in scholarship money annually, when in actuality they pay out less than half a million, is disgusting. She should be ashamed of herself. She is perpetuating this culture of downplaying the value of women as a force in society. A force not because they can turn heads with their boobs, but because they have thoughts in their pretty little heads that are quite possibly meaningful. I know. Shocking.
I put the onus on women to expose this crap for what it is. Don’t tell me for one second that the women on that stage are there for any other reason than to be crowned most beautiful, gorgeous, hot princess of ‘Merica and walk around waving at their admirers and wearing a sparkly tiara. I don’t buy it. Please forgive me if you are reading this and happen to be a strong, smart woman who chose to participate in a beauty pageant simply for the academic opportunities. If you truly subjected yourself to a beauty pageant simply to gain access to an academic opportunity and nothing else, who are you and what is your story? But I am skeptical that it could be so. Mainly because we still live in a world where women are primarily judged by their looks before all else, and even women value this type of judgment. Really? It has nothing to do with the title? It has nothing to do with feeling oh so pretty? It does. Period. Women are judged on their pretty packaging, and men are judged on their brains and/or balls. (Not what their balls look like, but the size of their cojones) The first impression of a woman is intimately tied to her looks whether we like it or not. What if Amy Farrah Fowler was doing yoga in tight pants in her apartment one episode while Penny sat in a frumpy, dumpy brown skirt reading scientific articles, wearing no make up, and donning huge glasses? What if that was how they introduced these characters? Would we still watch the show?
And here’s the kicker. As a woman you cannot really win, especially as a woman in science. If you are too pretty, people might judge you as ditzy or not serious. But if we want to encourage young girls to go into STEM fields, one of the ways we can do it is to show them that real, girly women can also be smart scientists. The Pennies of the world can be scientists, not just the Amy Farrah Fowlers. This is one of the barriers we face today to getting more girls in science – not enough female role models who look like the girly girls these young girls want to be. Wait…but if I dress too pretty I am a ditz and won’t be taken seriously. But, as Donald Trump says to the reporter in the video, “You wouldn’t have your job if you weren’t beautiful.” What. The. Fuck.
If you are trying to make your way in the difficult world of science, being too pretty can be a disadvantage. But being yourself, whatever that means to you, is so much more important than bending into the perceived picture of a scientist, or doctor, or professional hockey player, or anything else. Picture this: We, as women, who want to model a positive sense of womanhood to our daughters, stop telling our daughters that the ultimate score in life is to be a princess. We, as women, stop putting ourselves on display for judgment purely defined by our looks while trying to justify it by saying it is for scholarship opportunities. We, as women, are ourselves in any situation, whether that is tough, emotional, girly, outdoorsy, intellectual, bubbly, serious, or anything else we truly are, and expect that we will be taken seriously because of our merits and abilities. We, as women, EXPECT this. Imagine if we all did.
Imagine. How pretty would that be? I think it would be pretty damn beautiful.